PRINT November 1992


MEN AND MACHINES ARE MIXING it up with ever increasing frequency. Indeed, from ATMs to artificial hearts, we live among strange mechanical beings that add a compelling new dimension to that time-honored trinity of body, mind, and spirit.

Surprisingly, rather than mimicking the slick effects of Silicon Valley or Walt Disney World, much of the strongest art involving robotics and cybernetics takes the low-tech road. While a handful of artists explore the outer fringes of advanced technology (Lynn Hershman, for example, is currently collaborating with Sara Roberts in the development of a state-of-the-art interactive “vamp” robot that will respond alluringly to a viewer’s advances, and Lewis Allen has created, with Warhol’s initial participation, a creepily realistic, robotic version of the deceased artist), such high-tech presentations are relatively rare. This may be in part due to the expense of utilizing the most up-to-date technology. Yet the fact that some of the best work in this area actually masks sophisticated technologies behind intentionally clumsy apparatuses or archaic forms suggests that the general rejection of gee-whiz effects is, at least in some measure, esthetically or ideologically informed.

Norbert Wiener, the founder of modern cybernetics (the science of dually organic and inorganic “creatures,” created with prosthetics, interactive computer technology, and genetic engineering), believed that our drive to replicate life in the form of machines can be traced to the medieval Jewish automaton the golem, created from dust and magic spells. Others cite the ancient and virtually global tradition of puppetry. Indeed, the earliest documented cyborgs may well be those Herodotus recorded as being carried by women in ancient Egyptian fertility rites: images of the god Osiris, whose exceptionally large phalluses could be moved up and down by means of a string.1

A material and formal atavism, steeped in eros and mysticism, continues to inform a number of contemporary artists’ robotic and cybernetic creations. Among these are George Stone’s ephemeral Adam and Eve–like video couples, Gary Hill’s cruciform Crux, 1983–87, Joe Davis’ genetically engineered bacteria harboring DNA raster patterns in the shape of a vagina, Chico MacMurtrie’s golemlike giant and hauntingly mobile forest, Laura Kikauka’s throbbing heart, and the ritualistic performance-devices of Tim North and Liz Young.

Another current tendency is prefigured in Bruno Schulz’s modern treatment of the golem myth in his 1934 novella The Street of Crocodiles, in which the narrator’s father describes his desire to create animated tailor’s dummies. Compared to Mary Shelley’s better-known Dr. Frankenstein, this character’s ambitions are decidedly modest: the automatons’ “roles will be short, concise; their characters—without a background. Sometimes, for one gesture, for one word alone, we shall make the effort to bring them to life.”2 A similar sort of existential absurdity animates Matt Heckert’s hysterical, Sisyphean sound machines, Mark Pauline’s fantastic robots brought to life with one or two impressively destructive capabilities, Alan Rath’s humorously sniffing, ogling, or wheezing creatures, and Rebecca Horn’s mechanical actors doomed endlessly to repeat a single spastic gesture.

What does this lingering interest in the body, sexuality, and mysticism, on the one hand, and a distinctly cynical approach to high-tech robotics on the other suggest? It may be that we are still a long way from feeling at home with the fantastic futurisms articulated by academic technology-boosters such as Hans Moravec and Donna Haraway.3 Rather than opening the door to wholly new forms of life and consciousness, these artists seem to tell us that the creation of robots and cyborgs may simply perpetuate, albeit in newer guises, some of our species’ older, more predictable routines.

Larry Rinder is Curator for Twentieth Century Art at the University Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive of the University of California at Berkeley.


1. See Max von Boehn, Puppets and Automata, trans. Josephine Nicoll, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1972, p. 2.
2. Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles, 1934, in The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz trans. Celina Wieniewska, New York: Walker and Company, 1989, p. 32.
3. See Hans Moravec, Mind Children, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988, and Donna J. Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 177–78.

Thanks to Anastasia Shartin, Lucia Tripodes, and Stephanie Cannizzo.